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The Long Fall of the Jaguars

Bad trades, bad signings, and bad ideas have Jacksonville at the bottom of the NFL barrel

During Thursday’s embarrassing 27-10 home loss to the Colts, the Jacksonville Jaguars acted like they were rejecting a newly transplanted organ. Virtually every notable personnel move the team made this offseason produced a notably disappointing game. Veteran free agent wideout Laurent Robinson, already benched after signing a big deal this past offseason, fumbled a reception away to end a promising drive. Former Giants cornerback Aaron Ross was lost in coverage on a 41-yard bomb that set up a Colts touchdown. Franchise kicker Josh Scobee missed his first field goal of the year. Most disturbingly, wide receiver Justin Blackmon — whom the Jaguars traded up to acquire with the fifth pick in this year’s draft — continued to exhibit a total inability to separate from pro coverage and become a playmaker in the passing game. Jacksonville threw the ball 47 times against a team whose starting cornerbacks were both inactive, and Blackmon mustered just three catches for 25 yards. At least third-round pick punter Bryan Anger had a good game.

The man behind these decisions is Jaguars general manager Gene Smith, who serves as an interesting case study in why some of the league’s personnel decision makers fail when given a role as a key decision maker. Smith, who has been a part of the Jaguars organization since the team debuted, started as a lowly area scout before working his way all the way up through the ranks to become the team’s general manager in 2009. When the Jacksonville franchise was sold by Wayne Weaver to billionaire bumper magnate Shahid Khan during the 2011 season, Weaver’s last act as owner was to give Smith a three-year contract extension, a deal that ensured he would have time to build a team around Gabbert. Smith’s tenure, though, has been marked by one clear problem: For whatever Smith offers as a talent evaluator, he’s exhibited virtually no ability to be one in the NFL marketplace.

Smith himself encapsulated that problem with a legendary quote earlier this year when he was asked about Anger, the Cal punter whom the organization made the highest-drafted punter in nearly 20 years by taking him in the third round of the 2012 draft. Smith explained (part of) his simple philosophy: “I’d rather take a starter over a backup.”

Think about that for a second. You don’t have to apply advanced metrics to football or develop some sort of complex model of the NFL markets to realize how terrifyingly naive that is. Just think about your fantasy football draft. Gene Smith is basically saying that he’s the guy who would take a kicker in the ninth round — even when nobody else is going to take a kicker for another three more — just because he’s a starter. That’s bad enough when you’re running your $25 fantasy football team, but the Jaguars are a $760 million asset. If the Anger selection and Smith’s quote afterward were an isolated incident, it would be fair to write off that comment as relatively innocuous.

Instead, Smith has consistently exhibited an inability or lack of desire to read the marketplace in terms of the players he wants, forcing him to acquire them at the peak of their value or at valuations far above the amount he should pay. For whatever Anger might offer as a field position weapon, no team had taken a punter before the fifth round since these very same Jaguars selected Adam Podlesh in the fourth round of the 2007 draft. Smith surely could have traded down and acquired a future pick or two while drafting Anger in a later round, but he chose not to. Throughout his career as the chief decision maker in Jacksonville, that exact problem has repeatedly tripped Smith up.

In 2010, Smith made one of the more curious first-round decisions in recent memory when he chose Cal defensive tackle Tyson Alualu with the 10th pick of the draft. ESPN draftnik Mel Kiper regarded the pick as an enormous reach, noting that the Jaguars could have nabbed Alualu at the end of the first round. The Cowboys reportedly felt the same way. I’ve spoken to talent evaluators around the league who have confirmed those reports. Alualu’s been a competent NFL defensive tackle, but he’s far from dominant and hasn’t lived up to his draft pedigree.

That wouldn’t be a huge problem if the Jaguars held on to all of their picks, but Smith’s been aggressive in trading up to try to grab players he’s targeted. He dealt a fourth-rounder (the 101st pick) to move up two spots and grab Blackmon this year. In 2011, he moved up six spots in the first round to grab Gabbert by giving up his second-round pick, a selection that the Redskins turned into five different draft picks by the time they were done slicing it up. Gabbert, obviously, hasn’t lived up to expectations. In 2009, Smith went after William & Mary1 cornerback Derek Cox in the third round, a talented player who has shown flashes of brilliance as Jacksonville’s top corner this season. To get the third-rounder, though, Smith had to sacrifice his second-round pick in the 2010 draft to the Patriots, who are quite good at that sort of thing.2 That became the 44th pick in the draft, which the Patriots used to move up two spots and take Rob Gronkowski. Oops. There’s nothing wrong with trading up to grab a player here and there, but you have to replenish the well once in a while by trading down and grabbing additional picks, especially if you have a player who you think will still be around a half-round or more later. Smith has only traded down once in his four-year tenure with the Jags, swapping a fifth-round pick for a future fourth-rounder from the Saints. That’s simply not enough.

Smith’s issue with properly valuing players also extends to the free market, where he’s been involved with some curious decisions. This actually stretches back to the 2008 season, when Smith was promoted to a role as executive director of college and pro personnel under then-GM Shack Harris and the team went on an asset-spending spree. Buoyed by their 11-5 season the previous year, the Jaguars went all-in for a title run. Thinking that they were a rookie pass-rusher away from a dominant defense, they dealt two third-rounders and a fourth-rounder to the Ravens to move up 18 spots and grab defensive end Derrick Harvey, and followed that by trading up six spots in the second round to grab fellow defensive end Quentin Groves. Their bookend pass rushers of the future combined for 10.5 sacks across five seasons in teal. Harris also spent big in the free-agent market, signing cornerback Drayton Florence and wide receiver Jerry Porter to six-year deals that guaranteed them $23 million. They each lasted just one year with the team, with Porter earning $1 million for each of his 11 catches as a Jaguars player. Harris was fired after the season, but Smith has continued to make mistakes when he’s been given chances to delve into the free-agent market.

None of Smith’s free-agent contracts has been quite as bad as the Porter or Florence deals, but he’s consistently gotten less than he bargained for and/or paid more for a player than he needed to. He started by giving Torry Holt a three-year deal that guaranteed him $4 million in the first year, but Holt caught 51 passes in one touchdown-less season before being released. Aaron Kampman got a four-year, $25 million deal to leave Green Bay, but he only played 11 games with the Jaguars after his knee woes made the trip to Florida with him.3 In the abbreviated 2011 offseason, Smith swooped early to lock up Ravens safety Dawan Landry and Bills middle linebacker Paul Posluszny to long-term deals. Both Landry and Poluszny are above-average players, but Smith was shelling out big bucks to sign players at arguably the two most fungible positions on the defensive side of the football, places where teams often save their money. Consider that Posluszny was one of three young starting middle linebackers who hit the market that offseason, along with Stephen Tulloch and Barrett Ruud. Posluszny got a six-year, $42 million deal at the beginning of the free agent period. Tulloch and Ruud each had to wait and eventually ended up with one-year deals.4

This past offseason Smith really exhibited his tendency to buy high. After a run of injuries to defensive backs during the 2011 season, Smith signed Giants cornerback Aaron Ross to a three-year, $15.3 million deal. Signing a starting corner for a Super Bowl winner sounds like a good deal, but Ross was a fourth-stringer and castoff two months before the season, one who was reportedly on the trading block for a late-round pick. After everyone in front of him got hurt, the former first-round pick stepped back into the starting lineup and was below-average, but had his problems hidden by a dominant pass rush and an effective Corey Webster on the other side. Ross is only a part-time starter with the team this year.

More distressingly, Smith gave Cowboys wideout Laurent Robinson a five-year, $32.5 million contract that guaranteed him $14 million. It’s a deal that I’ve highlighted as a terrible idea before, but it speaks to everything Smith does wrong. Eleven months earlier, Robinson was an injury-prone Rams castoff who was available on the waiver wire for absolutely nothing. The Jaguars, with four years of tape on Robinson’s middling play, chose not to even bring him in for a tryout to supplement their dismal receiving corps. The Cowboys snapped him up and cut him, and again, the Jaguars didn’t bite. Then, when Dallas needed a wideout, they re-signed Robinson, stuck him in as the fourth option in a great passing offense, and promptly got an incredibly fluky 11-touchdown season from him in 14 shockingly healthy games. Then the Jaguars were interested! Unsurprisingly, Robinson’s gotten hurt again this year, as he unfortunately has more concussions in 2012 (three) than touchdowns (zero). He’s also lost his starting job to Cecil Shorts in the meantime. That’s the problem with the Jaguars, in a nutshell. A good organization notes that there are talented guys out on the waiver wire for nothing and tries to find the next Laurent Robinson for pennies on the dollar. A bad organization totally ignores what they’ve known for years about a guy like Robinson and, to paraphrase a Joe Sheehan quote, pays for the outlier while getting the regression back toward the mean.

It was the second time in two years that Smith had paid heavily for an outlier performance. Only the year before, Smith had fallen in love with an outlier season from tight end Marcedes Lewis, who scored seven touchdowns in his first four seasons before producing 10 touchdowns on 58 catches in 2010. It was an obviously unsustainable touchdown rate, but the Jaguars gave Lewis a five-year, $35 million deal that guaranteed him almost $17 million and paid him like he was going to be Rob Gronkowski (whose new contract guaranteed him nearly $2 million less) year after year. Instead, after signing his new deal, Lewis failed to catch even a single touchdown pass in 2011. If Lewis hit the market after last offseason, he would have struggled to get even 25 percent of that contract. Jeremy Mincey — who had seven sacks over his first three years in the league — got $9 million guaranteed to re-sign with the Jags after an eight-sack season in 2011. He has two sacks in eight starts this year. Wideout Mike Thomas never really broke out, but the Jags gave the possession receiver a five-year deal that guaranteed him $9 million. He lasted one year before tumbling on the depth chart and being dealt to the Lions. Even kicker Josh Scobee cashed in, when he followed seven years of kicking at a 77 percent rate with a 23-for-25 season that earned him a four-year, $14 million deal.5

It’s that spending on special teams that leads us back to Anger and how he met the Jaguars. When the aforementioned Podlesh signed with the Bears during the 2011 offseason, the Jags ponied up $2 million in guaranteed money to sign 43-year-old punter Matt Turk away from the Texans. The same team that ended up choosing to start Gabbert for virtually their entire season somehow decided that paying a $1.5 million premium for a 43-year-old punter (without a great track record, mind you) was worth more than paying a free agent the minimum. That’s bad. What’s worse is that they brought in Turk — who, again, is 43 years old — and told him that they were going to change him from a distance punter into a directional punter. At 43. That plan lasted five weeks before the Jaguars cut him after a particularly egregious performance and signed veteran Nick Harris, who delivered an entirely competent performance for the veteran minimum.

The Jaguars cut Harris the day after the draft because they needed to draft a starter. Through nine weeks, Anger was worth 1.8 points of field position, roughly the point total that a team loses every time they kick a field goal on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line as opposed to going for it. Five picks after the Jaguars chose Anger, the Seahawks grabbed Russell Wilson, a player who wasn’t supposed to be a starter, but one who they thought represented an excellent value proposition in the middle of the third round. Which of the two would you rather have? And if you asked Gene Smith, do you really think he would tell you he’d rather have Anger?

In the interests of full disclosure, I spoke to the Jaguars this offseason about a possible position in their organization, but eventually chose to stay with Grantland and am not pursuing an opportunity in any front office for the time being. The decision was amicable and had no influence on whatever criticisms appear here, which I think are steeped in fact. (Unless I screwed something up, in which case it’s out of incompetence, not malice.)

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell